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Austin, Usa . 13th Mar, 2024. A handful of protestors stand outside the convention center protesting the US Army sponsorship. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Music producer Irish acts should be commended for their SXSW boycott

Pat Neary says the Irish bands boycotting the music festival should be applauded for taking a stand.

BY 12 MARCH it had become clear that the annual flight of a small coterie of Irish musicians to Austin, Texas for the SXSW Festival had become mired in geopolitics.

One by one, the Irish acts took their stands and decided against making the trip. It should be noted that this was not an easy decision for them. It’s a costly journey for a gigging band to make to the Texas music festival, but the knowledge that SXSW has strong links to the US military with the US Army as the main sponsor was enough to push these bands to pull out. 

As Gaza has become unbearable for thousands of Palestinians and the global geopolitical atmosphere has become so tense, Irish musicians felt they had no choice but to step to the right side of history. By now, the dust is settling on another SXSW, but the international ripples may still develop into a small wave of permanent repercussions for the festival organisers.

SXSW is a well-renowned annual event over 35 years in existence. It began as a music industry showcase where a mix of US and international music acts travelled to perform in front of a number of music industry types. We’re talking record and publishing labels, management companies, live agents and of course public audiences in the hope of furthering the careers of these bands.

The festival still works that way mostly, except the digital world has infiltrated it such that it is now an event where tech, film and multimedia wings converge. It has now morphed into a much more expansive industry get-together. That expansion has meant more sponsors have joined, and this year, the horrors in Palestine have brought those sponsorship links into sharper focus.

Controversy building

The first indication that something odd was afoot at this long-established event was on 2 March when word came out that a minor Chicago-based singer Ella Williams [aka Squirrel Flower] had announced her refusal to play.

To be honest, it didn’t really register until within hours small, largely unheard-of acts from NYC, LA and North Carolina had also posted notice of withdrawal. It’s important to note, in light of the subsequent total Irish delegation boycott that American acts such as Ella, Proper, Mamalarkey and Eliza McWilliams [to credit their original principled stand] had been first to respond.

An internet posting by ‘Austin for Palestine Coalition’ had alerted these independent acts to a problem and a trickle quickly became a flood with Brighton’s Lambrini Girls [UK] and Belfast’s hip hop trio Kneecap almost immediately coming on board and in turn the domino effect of artist withdrawals culminating in the complete SXSW contingent from Ireland cancelling their appearances.

As things stand, between 80 acts have decided to boycott the event as we now know, the reasoning being, the ‘super sponsorship’ of the festival by both the US army and various US defence contractors. The dots were now fairly easy to connect considering the current horrendous military activity and bombing taking place in Gaza, the day after day slaughter of thousands of largely defenceless women and children and obvious US military culpability in what looks like massive war crimes being carried out by the Israeli occupation forces.

Music and activism

The marriage of activism and popular music is widely acknowledged and recorded in times of war, strife and injustice so this article doesn’t need to delve into social history and the power of song as a subject.

Even the most casual of music fans will have heard of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye and more and would be aware of punk rock, folk, soul, hip-hop and rap as cornerstones of revolutionary change. In Ireland, both Moving Hearts, the late Sinéad O’Connor and even, current, Dublin 4-piece folk miscreants Lankum have aired grievances and voiced political opinions to mirror societal upheaval. So it should come as no surprise that the current generation of musical peers would hold strongly held views.

What is surprising is the shock at the withdrawal of the acts in the first place. Once musicians became aware that the event was being overtly funded by the armaments wing it probably doesn’t take a musicologist or behavioural expert to deduce that quite a number of those same musicians, in general, would baulk at their art being subsidised by proponents of military technology.

From an Irish perspective, and quite possibly in other European countries this issue will have reverberated amongst the arts funding bodies that subsidise trips like these to music industry events. Both Music From Ireland, a consultancy body that administers the logistics of these trips and Culture Ireland, a funding wing of the Dept of Arts & Culture that often covers travel expenses will have experienced some turmoil these past few days, particularly as the SXSW event had begun as this fissure opened.

They have navigated this role quite successfully for decades – I myself travelled to SXSW whilst managing an act in the late 90′s and we were grateful to be helped by Culture Ireland – but this controversy will no doubt lead to some introspection. A knowledgeable friend suggested that events like this and probably standard music festivals will now need investigative research to allay controversial hidden partners/sponsors in future. 

While I agree that not only state bodies but acts, managers and music agents may have more research to do of the fine print, or, in this case, as it transpired, quite bold print, contained in events or festivals I’m certain there are not too many music gatherings that will be extolling publicly the armaments’ industry! The apparent oversight of many at SXSW to recognise this potentially sensitive link will be seen as a serious faux pas.

Will it make a difference?

The bigger headache now may be all SXSW’s, although it’s arguable that 80 or so acts cancelling from a total of 1400 might not really affect this large player. The negative publicity will sting though, as any search for news on this week’s activities centres on this boycott. In some ways, this story could be construed as the festival being a victim of its own successful expansion into the ‘tech bro’ world.

The monetary help of its nation’s army and its first cousins, the defence manufacturers will be discussed post this week’s event but will any change be initiated?

Certainly regarding its original jewel in the crown, live music, perhaps some clear demarcation concerning its commercial partnerships may need to be addressed.

The music industry has changed and contracted in the past 25 years as, ironically, technology has eaten it up but for Austin, as a beautiful musical city with great bars and venues the cry will rise as to how this event, supposed to help new music and young musicians grab opportunities, addresses this undoubted contentious oversight.

Already, Texan politicians of a particular hue are causing embarrassment with machismo utterances and the response from the event’s spokespeople so far, has been insipid, unclear and frankly confusing, befitting an organisation under a little pressure.

Kudos to the acts

Finally, a word of praise to all 12 Irish acts who have chosen to make a huge statement at a probable massive sacrifice to their professional growth. They have nailed their colours to the mast in favour of a people suffering an horrendous assault.

Bualadh bos to the bands:

  1. Kneecap
  2. Cardinals
  3. Chalk
  4. Mick Flannery
  5. Gavin James  
  6. SPRINTS
  7. Robert Grace
  8. Soda Blonde 
  9. Gurriers
  10. NewDad
  11. Enola Gay
  12. Conchur White

Led by the Belfast boys, Kneecap and swiftly followed by Soda Blonde, Sprints and then an economically curt statement, in keeping with his modest aura, by Mick Flannery.

For the less well-known acts, an even greater element of praise should be acknowledged. Musicians are not some amorphous generic blob, all of similar mindset. No doubt there are some as apolitical as anyone and they did not expect to be giving up their stab at performing and impressing a new American audience.

Here’s hoping this stance gives their careers a shot for the right reasons. They should be commended for unifying in the face of a true moral dilemma. As some of the musicians explained, their stance was nothing compared to the suffering of both the displaced Palestinian people in Gaza and the hostages and prisoners on both sides of the conflict as bombs and bullets rain down in the Middle East.

From an Irish musician’s viewpoint and the players involved, the bands’ meagre funds will have taken a hit, which is why their decision is so selfless and to be admired.

This controversy has overshadowed another issue regarding fees for performers which still seems to rear its head at so many festivals, but that subject is for another day.

For now, for the 80 or so musical acts that made a stand in Austin, it’s a clear message. Ceasefire now, the show can wait.

Pat Neary is an occasional music producer, recordist, booker, manager and promoter.

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